The Data Forecast: The Ridiculous CDO

COL01 - image for new column - edWe’re Solving the Wrong Problem

Data people love to have the same conversations over and over again. Attend a data conference and you will inevitably be confronted with questions like “What skills are necessary to be a good CDO?” and “Where should the Chief Data Officer report in an organization?”

It’s as if the CDO were some sort of data superhero for whom we can pick the powers. Should our superhero be able to fly, or should she shoot little spider webs from her wrist? Should our Chief Data Officer come from project management, data governance, or somewhere else? Do these powers come from magic or a terrible science experiment?

This isn’t quite how it works.

We want our CDOs to be knowledgeable executives, accomplished managers, profound business minds, and brilliant technologists. Yes — great idea! When you do find that superhero, enjoy paying them more than your CEO. Actually, just make them your CEO. That’s the role where this kind of unicorn talent belongs.

In the real world, we have individuals, all of whom have a unique backstory, failed science experiment or otherwise. They have strengths, weaknesses, and resume gaps. We can talk of ideals, but we must hire real people that will never quite fit perfectly. A good CDO candidate will be able to help your business use data to get better at what it does. Find the best person at that, and the details of their backstory will remain of secondary importance.

So assume we have a CDO identified. This is often a new position in our organization, whose responsibilities are clearly important, but cross over many functions that we already have in our businesses. It is often a nontrivial exercise to figure out how to fit the role in organizationally. Most fundamentally, we ask our data people community whether CDOs should report to IT or the business.

Then, like enlightened scholars we instinctively lock arms and cheer together, “Of course, the business! Don’t be ridiculous! The data is too important to the business to be left to ITs crazy ways!”

Okay, let’s back it up for a minute and break this down a little more carefully:

  • Does data need technology to be made useful? (yes)
  • Does IT do technology stuff for your company? (yes)
  • Does the business rely on IT to support other essential business functions? (yes)
  • So the Chief Data Officer should report to the business and not IT? (???)

Why are we even having this conversation? IT is clearly the logical place for the Chief Data Officer to reside.

Ah – but that elicits a visceral response inside of us data folks because we know that if we put the role of the CDO inside of IT, the CDO will inevitably be less effective. Why is that? Have we completely lost trust in our technology organizations to be a trusted part of the business?

Now, my friends, we are starting to address the real problem:

We want the CDO reporting somewhere other than IT because IT is not currently a critical part of the business.

Our technology organizations have been failing the business for a long time. It’s embedded in the culture and language of IT operations. For example, “requirements gathering” connotes a one-directional flow of information from the business to IT.

It’s like a Taco Bell drive through: “I’ll have the Office 365 Burrito please, and 2 CRM Soft Tacos.” Coming right up!

IT has never learned to do much beyond assemble the requests from the core ingredients on demand. They get talked at by the business, and then do whatever necessary to keep from being yelled at.

When IT becomes overwhelmed with requests, things slow down, and eventually they start to say no. Relations between the business and IT degrade, shadow IT pops up, and everybody is angry with each other.

Enter the Chief Data Officer.

Here is a technology-ish person who cares! Who “gets” the business, and has empathy for their needs. Certainly they will be a real partner who will get it right this time…

…Even though they are typically given a minuscule team with a vague mandate, and no real authority beyond that.

We are watching history repeat itself. We’ve been down this road before. This is why we created the Chief Information Officer in the first place. The CIOs should have been addressing these data challenges all along! They got busy with other stuff, apparently, and never got around to it.

Organizations need to be evaluating why CIOs are not living up to their expectations, not where to create the same problem with yet more fake C-level titles while setting them up to fail in a new way.

CIOs need to be actual C-level executives. This means a strategic business function with a meaningful impact to the success of the company. By necessity, a role with a PNL. Success at the C-level requires a measurable contribution, and that must be a balanced one. A cost-center head cannot be an effective C-level executive.

But that is not the only problem. An even bigger challenge is that we have nobody to fill this mythical role, whether you call it CIO or CDO. Remember, our technology organizations are manning take-out windows, gathering requirements and delivering on waterfall projects with no expectation of creativity or problem solving beyond technical syntax.

This has led to a world where we have few strategically-aligned technology professionals available to perform true business executive CIO roles.

CIOs are everywhere. Most are performing incomplete functions with incomplete skills delivering incomplete value. We must stop filling our CIO positions with technology directors (or CTOs). Our Chief Data Officers aren’t real C-level positions unless they are in lieu of a CIO, and our top data people should absolutely report to the CIO.

What we need are better CIOs. What we need are people that are asked to be strategic parts of the business from early in their careers, not just when they reach the top and wonder why they don’t really have a seat at the table. We need to completely rethink the role of technology and data throughout our organizations.

These are good ideas, but are big sweeping changes that we will need years to achieve. What can be done now?

First we must learn from within. Data folks trail years behind the collaboration developments the applications side of technology have employed. Agile, DevOps, Continuous Testing/Deployment, NoSQL, Cloud Technologies — all of these can begin to help us understand how to react more nimbly.

These are relatively easy, technology-driven innovations that we can build upon. The greater challenge is rebuilding the bridge between IT and the business. This is where there is no secret formula.

Building IT into a critical business capability requires executive sponsorship, strong leadership throughout, and most importantly, empathy.

We have to want to come together to make our organizations better. In the end, stop caring so much about the Chief Data Officer. Don’t pretend that this singular position does anything by itself. Stop dancing around the real problems that are causing our organizations to fall short of their potential.

Find ways to drive business innovation with data. Invest in that however you can, however it works for your business. Your competitors are certainly doing the same. Your customers will determine the path you must take to be successful. Listen to them. Adjust. Improve. Listen some more.

We will certainly talk more about these topics in upcoming columns. Until next time, go make an impact!

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About Anthony Algmin

Anthony J. Algmin was the first Chief Data Officer for the Chicago Transit Agency and is now Chief Data Officer for Uturn Data Solutions, a Chicago-based consultancy that helps companies use data and cloud technologies to get better at what they do best. For more information on OpenGrid or Uturn Data Solutions, contact Anthony at aalgmin@uturndata.com.

  • Julian Schwarzenbach

    Anthony,
    An interesting and thought provoking post. Based on your brief bio, you clearly understand the role of the CDO, so I guess this post was aiming to promote discussion – a valid objective!

    For me, what you have portrayed is a view of the organisation based on past failures. Particularly the statement “The CIOs should have been addressing these data challenges all along!”. However, data management is a bit like safety management in that it can be a broad, intangible activity to sort out with no ‘silver bullet’ that can resolve all issues. I fully understand why a busy CIO will get ‘distracted’ by more immediate and tangible technology related issued.

    If organisations were ‘fully compliant’ from a data perspective i.e. everyone provided good data as an outcome of business activities, did not create new data sets without prior approval, reused existing data rather than created new data etc. then the CDO role would be redundant. However, organisations are complex beasts with many competing objectives, pressure to meet performance targets (which may mean that data is the thing that loses out) and overlapping projects/initiatives/developments all of which can impact the overall data asset.

    Additionally, with few exceptions, organisations have a legacy of data that was created in the past, may or may not have been kept up to date, may have suffered the results of poor data migrations etc. Therefore, this data legacy can present many challenges, particularly when it is costly/impractical/impossible to recreate/correct poor data.

    I agree with your view that the CDO will typically have a small team, since I believe that the role of the CDO is more one of facilitating and evangelising good data management practices. Individual data stewards/business owners will be the ones who can identify when data is incomplete or inaccurate, so are best placed to try and correct these issues and prevent them reoccurring. IT will tend to spot issues arising from invalid data and missing mandatory data, however, they will be too remote from the entity represented by the data to know whether a data item that appears complete, valid and plausible is actually wrong!

    The rate of data growth and the ease of creating new cloud services means that the challenge of effectively managing enterprise data continues to increase.

    • Anthony J. Algmin

      Julian, I agree with everything you said. When I write something like this that promotes theory without a specific use case in mind, it tends to oversimplify how a real-world situation would need to be treated. Perhaps the most important takeaway is that it doesn’t really matter that much what you title positions in an organization — the important thing is that we understand the importance of data, that we identify folks to help an organization turn that potential value into meaningful outcomes, and that we put those people into situations where they can be successful. The rest really depends on the use case.

  • Martin Spratt

    Excellent and thoughtful article. 2016 was littered with CDO failures. Watch for more of those in 2017 as they fail to meet the fantasy of expectations, by CDO candidates (like goldfish) with little to no pedigree to even understand the data-engineering problem they are wrestling with to unlock business value. I am forming the opinion that the solution is a better educated market, and better educated data professionals who “communicate and influence” more effectively on data matters. Perhaps it’s back to school for CDO’s ?

  • Ad Stam

    Just my two cents. It starts with an IT initiated plea for someone at a “C” level postion to deal with “all data”. Well I believe that is a start on the wrong foot. It is indeed ridiculous to position such a role at “C” level as this will be seen by the businesspeople as the next attempt of IT to gain control of the organization. And that while IT has – in the majority of organizations – a solid trackrecord of “overpromising and underdelivering”. IT has a history of launching a “silver bullet” every 2 years and until now this never resulted in a “bulls eye hit”. And although I fullhearted agree with the need for a “waterproof” process (supported by a solid data governance system) I believe it would be better to have a more modest approach instead of claiming a seat a the board…..

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